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Putting Those Black Marks Behind You : Job seekers with a checkered past can still get hired in today’s market. But it requires honesty and an extra dose of patience.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like most job seekers, Sarah was a little nervous heading into the interview. She knew she was qualified for the job--her work history and references proved it. But she had another kind of experience that set her apart from other candidates: a felony conviction and 3 1/2 years in prison for drug dealing.

“I had a lot of anxiety about that part of the job application where they ask you if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony,” said Sarah, a Monrovia resident who didn’t want to give her last name. “I was extremely fearful that no one would hire me if I told them the truth.”

Job hunting is tough enough without a seemingly career-ending black mark on your resume. Can an employer possibly select as the best candidate someone who has been fired from their last job, done time in the joint, been out of the job market for years or spent the last six months in rehab?

Probably not at first glance, say career counseling experts. But nevertheless, they add, there are ways to de-emphasize that blotch and redeem yourself in the eyes of the hiring director. A polished resume, deft interviewing skills, a thick skin, boundless determination--and a little luck--are your tickets back to the working world, according to Kate Pope, director of counseling for Women at Work, a Pasadena-based nonprofit job-counseling service.

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“Realistically, it’s going to take you longer than the average job seeker,” Pope said. “You need to be focused and motivated. But it can be done.”

Here are a few pointers from Pope and others for people trying to work themselves back to respectability.

* Reorganize your resume.

Most prospective employers aren’t stupid. If you’ve been out of the work force for 15 years, reams of action verbs on your resume aren’t going disguise it. But that doesn’t mean you have to make it obvious with a chronological format.

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Organize your work history around skills and accomplishments. Grab a good resume book to learn how. For example, your summary of achievements at the top could include “11 years accounts payable experience” and “skilled negotiator and team leader” without calling attention to a disco-era timetable.

“Dates can make the skills irrelevant to the employer,” says Charlene Walker, a career counselor and partner in Tustin-based Career Focus. “Don’t highlight them if that’s going to work against you.”

The same advice holds true for young job seekers with such blemishes as a lousy grade point average. The university you attended, the subjects you studied and the degree you earned are sufficient academic information. If a prospective employer wants a transcript, he’ll ask for it. In the meantime, play up your part-time job, your extracurricular activities and other responsibilities that put your GPA into the tank. They’ll go a long way toward explaining that D in chemistry--if it comes up at all.

* Don’t assume that employers know everything.

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Human resources managers aren’t psychics or gumshoes. A lot of companies, particularly small ones, aren’t going to spend a fortune doing extensive background checks on prospective hires. In fact, a Supreme Court ruling that allowed a worker to sue a former employer over a bad reference has made it likelier than ever that old bosses won’t dish the dirt on you.

So if you nearly came to blows with your old supervisor or did a stint in drug rehab, chances are a prospective employer won’t find out unless you yourself spill the beans.

Also, never underestimate the sloth of some hiring chiefs. Sarah admits she intentionally left blank any questions about felony convictions on employment applications, hoping to at least get as far as an interview, where she could explain the facts in person. She never had to. No one at any of the three jobs she has held since leaving prison ever asked about the missing information or bothered to do a police check on her.

“I never lied about my past. I was willing to talk about it if they asked,” Sarah said. “But I sure as heck wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up.”

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* Be honest. But know when to shut up.

Not every job seeker is as lucky as Sarah. Some employers will tolerate a few nicks on your employment history, but they’ll show you the door if they find out you’ve lied or omitted important details about your history. If a hiring director homes in on your soft spot, don’t flinch. Be direct, be sincere--but for goodness’ sake, be brief.

Some job seekers are so anxious to explain away that black mark that they end up saying way too much. Groomed by society to share information, women are particularly susceptible to this trap, according to career consultant Walker.

“Things get said in interviews that should only be shared with a priest, a rabbi or a gynecologist,” Walker said.

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Example: Resist the urge to explain that you took that leave of absence because you went on antidepressants following your hysterectomy, then decided to make a new start with breast-enhancement surgery and a face lift. A simple answer like “medical leave” or “family crisis” will do just fine.

Got fired from your last job? Give a succinct and truthful explanation. But don’t apologize or spend a lot of time bad-mouthing your former employer. It’s the kiss of death.

* Turn your weakness into a strength.

Time was when someone who took a year off to see the world was considered a slacker. Now in the age of the global village, it could brand you as a future head of the Hong Kong division. It’s all in how you market the experience.

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Been downsized? Join the club. Losing a job to mergers or cost-cutting has become so commonplace that it just doesn’t carry the stigma it once did. So don’t hang your head.

“Chances are the person behind the desk has been through the same thing,” Pope said. “Show what you’re doing to adapt to change.”

Firings or felonies? Face it, it’s going to be tougher. But persistence and a positive attitude will get you working again. Let’s say the interviewer asks why the company should waste desk space on an ex-con like you. You can choose this moment to slink away in shame or go postal and head back to your old job making license plates. Or you can use it as a platform to talk about what you learned and why it’s going to make you one of the company’s most valued employees.

“You turn it around,” said Adele Scheele, director of the Career Center at Cal State Northridge. “You talk about responsibility, character, how you’ve been tested and come through it. Not everyone is going to be supportive. But if you’re sincere, you just might reach someone.”

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The bigger the black mark on your record, the more you’re going to have to hustle, warned Scheele. Get creative. Offer to work weekends, holidays and the graveyard shift. Lobby hard for a tryout of any length, anything to get your foot in the door.

Sarah is now working toward a college degree to put more distance between herself and her past.

“I need the extra ammunition to improve my chances,” Sarah said. “I’m only going to get lucky so many times. Eventually the job I really want is going to come open, and someone’s going to ask about my past.”

* Don’t underestimate your chances in a tight job market.

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The nation’s 4.5% unemployment rate is the economic equivalent of a singles bar at closing time: Any warm body starts to look attractive.

Solid skills can overcome a checkered past, particularly in hot sectors such as high tech. Welfare-to-work has been a rousing success in part because entry-level employers have exhausted just about every other source of available labor.

Small businesses, in particular, are feeling the pinch, according to Scott Hauge, chairman of the California Small Business Assn. He has helped spearhead a program in the Bay Area that is putting former welfare recipients to work in small firms.

“Most have poor work histories,” Hauge said. “We try to get past that.”

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Which doesn’t mean mom-and-pop firms are going to hire a convicted embezzler to run the cash register just because they’re short-staffed. But in this job market, they’re fishing a lot deeper into the labor pool than they used to.

“Employers have to be more resourceful now,” Hauge said. “A person with desire and the right attitude is going to find opportunities.”


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